Ali was usually very calm when it came to medical problems, so my heart sank when I detected panic in his eyes. I quickly picked up our daughter, Mona, who at age six was already too heavy for me. I felt her wipe her mouth against the netela I had thrown over my hair out of respect for one of the holiest sites of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. From inside Bete Giyorgis, I could hear a monk reciting the Bible in Amharic. The remains of the pasta and meat sauce that Ali, the more dutiful parent, had made Mona eat earlier, sat in a puddle of undigested food on the side of the steps to the church. Though Fascist Italy failed to subjugate Ethiopia after years of occupation, Ethiopians conquered their unwelcome visitor’s cuisine with spices and flavors I found closer to my own Iranian roots.
An older woman in a brown cotton tunic and a thin white netela helped us sit down on the steps. Mona’s legs hung heavy over my lap and I nestled her head against my chest. She looked pale and her hands felt cold. Without a word, the woman quickly walked to the edge of the pit, scooped up dirt with her hands and brought it back to cover the vomit.
“Go help her,” I told Ali, embarrassed that our offspring had soiled a sacred site. He followed the woman. I took some tissue paper out of my handbag to wipe Mona’s mouth. Her clothes looked clean, but her shoes were a mess.
Our guide, Mr. Abebe, crouched down to look at her face, then looked at me. I must have looked scared. “She’ll be alright,” he assured me. “It’s altitude sickness.”
The woman and Ali made a few more trips before returning to us. The smell of the now covered vomit still hung in my nostrils. I wanted to hold the woman’s hand to thank her, but I didn’t trust the cleanliness of my own hands. I held her eyes instead. “Ameseginalehu,” I said, managing a smile.
Her eyes smiled back, and I sensed a motherly tenderness. I had assumed that she was a nun, but I now wondered if she was a pilgrim, a visitor just like us. “Of course,” she said in clipped English, her voice deep and soft. I was still astonished at how fluent Ethiopians were in English – bourgeois and beggar alike. We had been to far more developed countries where we had to ask for directions by pointing to maps and miming our questions.
“She will be fine,” she said as she squeezed my shoulder. “It’s altitude sickness.” She then climbed the steps and disappeared into Bete Giyorgis.
We had seen a European-looking boy pass out in a touristy restaurant in Addis a few days prior. I knew altitude sickness was real, but this knowledge did little to untie the knot in my stomach. I didn’t know a single doctor in Ethiopia other than my own husband, who didn’t look reassuring at the moment. Despite being home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lalibela felt like the Iranian villages I visited when I was an architecture student, the ones with two-room clinics staffed by a newly graduated doctor doing their compulsory two-year service in an underdeveloped area. The reassuring towers of the huge hospital campus of Providence, the city we now called home, was half a world away. I suddenly felt selfish for my wanderlust. As I held her tight and muttered reassuring words, I started mapping our way out. We were in a 700 year old human-made pit, a twenty minute walk through interconnected trenches and tunnels past the northern cluster of churches we had already visited, to get to the tour company’s van. A half hour ride on a bumpy dirt road with stretches of asphalt to Lalibela airport, where if lucky, we could catch a one hour flight to Addis. I was certain we would find well-equipped hospitals there.
I looked up to the reddish exterior of the church, and silently pleaded to St. George and King Lalibela to take pity on us, non-Christian visitors of their New Jerusalem. The Ethiopian church required every able-bodied Christian to make a trip to Jerusalem. During the reign of King Lalibela, a descendent of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, Jerusalem was under Muslim rule. It is said that the rock-hewn churches are the result of the saint-king’s vision to found New Jerusalem in Roha, later renamed to Lalibela, to allow Ethiopians to continue making the required pilgrimage.
Ali took Mona out of my arms. She rested her cheek against his shoulder and closed her eyes.
“How far away is the next church?” Ali asked.
“Bete Giyorgis is secluded to the west of the site,” Mr. Abebe replied. “The second cluster is about the same distance from here as the first group.” He looked at Mona. “I don’t think we can make it there under the current circumstances.”
Visiting the churches of Lalibela had been the main reason we chose to tour the Tigray region. But we both knew that Mr. Abebe was right. We began our uphill journey from Bete Giyorgis to the main entrance. By the time we got to the steps of the Tomb of Adam, Ali was out of breath and I worried the thin air would knock him down too. Both of us were raised in Shiraz, at an altitude of 5,200 feet, but Lalibela was another 3,000 feet above sea level. Besides, we had been living in cities along the east coast of America for over ten years.
“Let me take her,” I said.
“I’m OK,” Ali insisted, panting.
Mr. Abebe, a Lalibela native in his forties, took her from Ali’s arms.
“I have three children myself,” he told me reassuringly.
“Thank you Mr. Abebe,” I said, walking quickly to keep up with him. “Are there any hospitals in Lalibela?”
“I doubt you would need one, but it is better if you go to Addis,” he replied.
Outside of Bete Debre Sina and Bete Golgotha Mr. Abebe stopped to exchange words with the two monks with whom we had taken pictures earlier. Ali, who had caught his breath, took Mona from him. Wearing mustard yellow and white robes, the monks leaned on their walking sticks, listening attentively to what Mr. Abebe was telling them in Amharic. They looked at Mona in concern and offered us reassuring smiles.
Under the shade of the temporary truss that protects Bete Maryam from the elements, we paused briefly to catch our breath. I looked up at the church where Stars of David and Swastikas have coexisted under the same roof for centuries to see its various Coptic cross windows. Past the fertility pool with its greenish water and the wall niches where they used to bury the monks was the tunnel to the first church, Bete Medhane Alem, where Mona had excitedly played with the kebero drums. It was startling how quickly she had gone from skipping around and pestering Mr. Abebe to show her the replicas of the Ark of the Covenant in each church to her current state of sleeping on Ali’s shoulder. I had never seen a human’s livelihood diminish so quickly. Her hands and forehead still felt cold, so I draped her floral fleece jacket around her.
Past the street vendors selling souvenirs, we found our van. I climbed into the back and Ali put her next to me. Mr. Abebe finished his phone conversation with Mr. Amanuel, the head of the tour company based in Addis.
“Amanuel said he will send you a list of private hospitals in Addis,” he said. “And he will book flights if it becomes necessary.”
Mona briefly opened her green-gray eyes at the jolt of the van pulling onto the road. I put an arm around her and remembered how excited she had been to see Lalibela. On our short flight on the Dash 8 plane from Gondar to Lalibela she had told me that the two passengers in the front row were speaking French, a language she knows well from the international school she attends. The only six-year-old on the 80 seat flight, she then made up a chant in an attempt to quell her boredom and show off her language skills. “Where is Lalibela? Kojast Lalibela? Où se trouve Lalibela?” she had repeated in English, Farsi, and French. When the French-speaking passengers glanced in our direction, I busied myself with my travel book. Once the plane started its descent, she had excitedly changed it to, “Here is Lalibela! Injast Lalibela! Lalibela se trouve ici!”
Close to the hotel, she opened her eyes and looked up at me. “Kojast Lalibela?” I asked in Farsi.
Her eyes shined and she managed a weak smile. “Injast, injast,” she said. It’s here, it’s here.
I blinked back the tears that were welling up in my eyes and kissed the top of her head.
BIO: Maryam Ghatee is an Iranian-American Rhode Islander, a mom, and an engineer.